Academic journal article Essays in Literature

The Proud Penitent: Madame Merle's Quiet Truimph in Henry James's 'The Portrait of a Lady.'

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

The Proud Penitent: Madame Merle's Quiet Truimph in Henry James's 'The Portrait of a Lady.'

Article excerpt

At their last meeting at the convent, after separate visits with Pansy, Madame Merle discloses to Isabel that Ralph was the true source of her inheritance. For Isabel, Madame Merle's revelation is just the latest "in a world illuminated by lurid flashes," and she counters, after pausing momentarily, with "her only revenge: 'I believed it was you I had to thank.'"

Madame Merle dropped her eyes; she stood there in a kind of proud penance. "You're very unhappy, I know. But I'm more so."

"Yes; I can believe that. I think I should like never to see you again."

Madame Merle raised her eyes. "I shall go to America," she quietly remarked while Isabel passed out.(464)

What, we may ask, is a "proud penance," except an obvious oxymoron? Surely these are mutually exclusive terms. Is she penitent for the blasted hopes, the wreckage of human relationships, the spiritual murder which she has contrived to orchestrate? Or is she proud of achieving some success, for which these disasters were regrettable, perhaps unforeseen, side effects? Is she slinking off in exile to America, or is she returning in a kind of triumph to her homeland, the great work of her life in Europe now completed?

The alternate interpretation of Serena's leave-taking as more a triumphant departure than humiliating exile finds little support among readers, who almost universally see her perfidious nature exposed, with Isabel, noble in the twin tragedies of her marriage and Ralph's imminent death, banishing her forever.(1) Yet retrospectively we can see Serena as single-minded strategist and victor, with no means proscribed to achieve her goal of a hand-picked surrogate mother for Pansy, even though the combat has been more costly than she may have anticipated. Brilliant strategist, she nevertheless is a general without an army. Marginalized in her peripheral materializations, her life before the last showdown with Isabel has been that of the exile, homeless despite visiting rights at Gardencourt and other great houses, of which, as she informs Isabel, "I know many" (459). Merle retains the initiative in announcing that she will return home to America, a return from exile rather than a "banishment," and not a caving in to Isabel's expressed desire "never to see you again."

A significant problem in foregrounding Madame Merle and her role in the drama is that studies which single her out for special consideration are few and far between. Most readers link her with Gilbert Osmond as a co-conspirator, each mirroring the other in diabolical machinations, a canonical interpretation difficult to dislodge in order to focus on Serena's role the attention it deserves. Indeed, it is Osmond who is more visible as Isabel's husband, and whose consciousness, unlike Merle's, is probed by the narrator, thus offering wider opportunities for critical attention.

Almost all our views of Merle are external, limited to the "charming surface" she presents to the world. Instead of internalized revelations, we are offered Isabel's first impressions of Merle as a "Juno or Niobe" (154), potent mythological figures respectively of duplicity and motherhood, as noted by Joseph McCullough (315-16). Merle's attempts to protect Pansy and influence her future are pervasive and suggest, particularly in retrospect, a consistent maternal objective of the artful scheming necessitated by her disadvantaged position. We have to infer such an objective, since we cannot read the minds of goddesses, and James accordingly respects the impenetrability of Merle's consciousness. Recognition of Merle's importance, but frustration at her inscrutability, perhaps gave rise to the 1881 critical exception to an otherwise favorable review that "the most ambitiously conceived character in the book, Madame Merle, is perhaps the least successful" (Noble 49).

Ironically, however, Isabel's early perceptions, clothed in the garments of myth, prove a closer evaluation of character than intervening judgments by Ralph, Mrs. …

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